Archive for April, 2010

At Least It’s A Start

April 30, 2010


  Ever see “Un Chien Andalou”, the film Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali released in 1929?  It epitomizes one sort of surrealism in that the scenes make no real sense and in fact seem like a hyper real dream sequence.  No meaning I guess but what might be given up to psychoanalysis which is a scary thought given what follows.

  The opening montage is one of the most disturbing in all of cinema.  I found it on YouTube, but chose not to import it here.  The photo above is from the first bit and I’ll tell you that the other hand holds a straight razor.  To also know in advance (if you chose to seek it out) that in the next few frames is a dead donkey stand-in will effect  no comfort.

  I thought of this yesterday when I read that a new music video by Sri Lankan M.I.A. was sensored from YouTube.  Son had taken me to it the previous evening.  It is by Romain Gavras, the son of the maker of award winning overtly politically themed films (“Z” most famously) Costa Gavras. 

  The video by Gavras fils employs graphic violence to convey it’s message, but you know you’re watching a movie.  The raw technique employed by the eighty years older segment bypasses your intellect.

You’ve been warned.  Me, I’d have allowed the former to continue to play and will forever try to repress my big screen memory of the latter.

  I shave with a straight razor.  Taking it against the strop (and occasionally a stone) somehow sets an early rhythm for the day.  But more important is the sort of early edge it puts on my consciousness.  Ya sorta gotta pay attention.  Dreams left behind and matinal ruminations bypassed, I’m reminded that the moment present is all there is.

  And forget soon after, but at least it’s a start.

*Un Chien Andalou translates from the French as “An Andalusian Dog”.  And if you don’t know what the Andalusian Peninsula is you had better figure it out before our paths next cross.

**Interesting that both leading actors from the Bunuel flic took their own lives.  The woman by self immolation…

***The obvious didacticism blunts the effect of the violence of the Gavras video which, upon reflection, is the case of at least several of his father’s films as well. 

****Didacticism aside, Gavras pere’s films get their point across.  His “Missing” (1982), which was about Les Disaparecidos in Pinochet’s Chile, led to a $150 million lawsuit by the real counterpart to the fictionalized US ambassador to that country.  It was dismissed.  And though Pinochet died without having been convicted, he was forced to weave in and out of legal processes for the last decades of his life.  And star of the movie Jack Lemmon died of natural causes.

*****The M.I.A. video can be found on her website:

The Tyrant Next Door

April 23, 2010


 I don’t get lawns.  I mean, I’m glad I have one and I revel in its revivification each spring.  I’m just not particularly particular about its constitution.  Green is great, but green alone lacks drama and verve.  What is up with the incredible close cropped homogeneity that pervades most of suburbia? 

  Well (you read it here) it’s the outer manifestation of a sequestered  concern that there might not be order in our universe – which of course there is not.  At the beginning, for a moment, it was indeed highly organized.  Since, however, we’ve been hurtling toward ever greater disorder.  Entropy.  The universe is a mess, getting messier by the moment, and there’ll be no turning back the arrow of time.  Too bad, so sad.

  The more assiduous the lawn care, the more every blade in a lawn is identical and oriented just so, the more bottled up inner turmoil can logically be assumed to inhabit the owner determined to beat his little part of the planet into submission.  Just watch the reaction after a kid cuts a path and you’ll see what I mean.  Jeers and tears all out of proportion and to no good end.

  Makes me think of Thomas Hobbes.  His Leviathan, published in 1651, is perhaps the most important work of modern political theory.  In it Hobbes asserts the necessity of an iron fisted central authority strong enough to preclude civil disorder as well as to enable a credible defense. 

  It made certain sense back then, especially given the provenance of his thinking.  Told that the approach of the Spanish Armada jolted his mother into labor, he later said that “I was born the twin of fear.”  His point of perspective though didn’t allow him to foresee twentieth century totalitarianism and the associated agony and horror left in its wake.

  Sure, civil society must most certainly be.  But not to the point of heartlessness and cruelty.  As the Dalai Lama says, “The purpose of our lives is to be happy” and dandelions can help.  They are bits of beauty that arrive on their own, unannounced. If allowed, they can provide emotional counterpoint to Hobbes’ famous dictum that “life is nasty, brutish, and short”. 

  Walt Whitman, among others, would agree.  From Leaves of Grass:

Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling,
Give me juicy autumnal fruit ripe and red from the orchard,
Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows,
Give me an arbor, give me the trellis’d grape,
Give me fresh corn and wheat, give me serene-moving animals
  teaching content,
Give me nights perfectly quiet as on high plateaus west of
   the Mississippi, and I looking up at the stars,
Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers where I
  can walk undisturbed.
Give me for marriage a sweet-breath’d woman of whom I should
  never tire,
Give me a perfect child, give me away aside from the noise of the
  world a rural domestic life,
Give me to warble spontaneous songs recluse by myself, for my own
  ears only,
Give me solitude, give me Nature, give me again O nature your
  primal sanities!

*Finally, I’m ecstatic to report that the January 2, 2010 Economist (what else?) tells us that dandelions “may yet make the big time”.  They might supplement or even replace Hevea brasiliensis which is the scientific name for the traditional rubber tree.  Can you imagine what a field of them would look like?

Judd Viburnum

April 16, 2010


  Marie Winn wrote The Plug in Drug in 1977 examining the effects of television on the developing minds of young people.  In the 25th anniversary edition she put the range of new electronic media under her scrutiny and, among other stuff, gave it all as the cause of a significant decline in average SAT scores of US high school seniors.

  Remember how I’ve described many times how the brain wires itself up through interaction with its own particular sensory environment?  A new book, iBrain* explores the effects of “growing up digital” on neuronal development.  The authors tell us that “Because of the current technological revolution, our brains are evolving right now – at a speed like never before”. 

  They demonstrate how addictive technology can be and that even just intent perusal leads to a diminution in social skills.  “With the weakening of the brain’s neural circuitry controlling human contact, our social interactions may become awkward, and we tend to misinterpret, and even miss subtle, nonverbal messages.” 

  The apparent purpose of the book is to identify this and other ramifications of modern media along with ameliorative suggestions.  It describes a “brain gap” between older and younger minds – ‘digital immigrants’ and ‘digital natives’ –  and how to narrow it.  The tone is not dire, but optimistic and hopeful.  Still… 

  It is well known that the average American spends far more time in front of some sort of screen than engaged in any sort of physical activity.  In this book a study at the University of Illinois is recounted that correlates the development of digital leisure technologies and a significant decline in visits to our national parks.

  How can this not bring to mind the middle (dark) ages of Europe in which the educated preferred to read Aristotle’s description of something rather than endeavor to undertake a real experience of it?  Alchemy – the attempt to turn common elements such as lead into gold – was big.  Doesn’t that remind you of the incredible profusion of gambling/lottery venues?

  Jeesh.  These days of spring, wife and I fight over who will take our dog on his evening constitutional.  Around the corner is a shrub that, as it comes into bloom, gives olfactory intimations of heaven. Especially in the dark when vision is reduced to monochromy and smell symmetrically amplified.

  Recently I ‘borrowed’ a cutting to take to a green thumb and identify.  “Oh my God” she said “let me have another whiff”.  Exact quote.  “Maybe mock orange, but I’m not sure, let’s go ask Ned.  I have to know too”.  I followed her to the shrubbery section where stood gnome Ned.      

  As we approached, he smiled broadly.  “Judd Viburnum” he said when he saw what I held.  “Wonderful, isn’t it?  We have one outside our bedroom window that we trim to keep the top just above the sill.  Oh Lord if doesn’t it make for a few of the most enchanting nights of the year.   We never leave town during the middle of April.”

   I wouldn’t either.

*iBrain, Surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind; Small, Gary and Vorgan, Gigi; Harper; 2009.

Take Heart!

April 9, 2010


  A “Notice of Annual Meeting Of Shareholders” aka proxy statement, is the bland accompaniment to large public corporations’ glossy annual reports.  Especially when economic tides rise high, the latter are filled with impressive graphs and color photos of beaming faces in far flung places.  The former are little more than ink on paper whatever the water level.

  The proxy statements carry much arcanity along with an aspect of a company’s operations under growing scrutiny – compensation.  With the nation’s unemployment well beyond 10%, bailouts, etc, it is interesting to read how pay packages in the millions and tens of millions are assembled.

  Take a big bank.  Out of the 100+ pages of one March 2010 proxy, nearly forty pages are devoted to graphs and articulation in intricate rationalization.  (The next largest section goes all the way to seven pages.)  We hear about the need for sustained leadership, peer data review, retention performance share awards, and of course TARP.

  Furthermore, generally speaking, salary plays a relatively small roll in these arrangements.  Bonuses are where the dessert is and it’s assembled from an assortment of goodies like stock and options to buy stock at a certain price.  Thus, the price of a share of a company’s stock is the determining factor in the generation of wealth for many CEOs.

  The problem is that share price performance is not necessarily directly related with the underlying trajectory of a business.  Short term actions do not necessarily accrue to long term benefit.  Conversely, in a difficult environment, a manager might execute brilliantly yet yield meager profit.

  Enter (who else) Warren Buffet.  The compensation part of the 2010 Berkshire Hathaway proxy covers but one of its eleven pages.  Buffet’s personal wealth has of course grown – but not at the expense of his shareholders.  He pays himself less than $200,000/yr.  But what is really interesting is his method for developing pay packages for his key people.

  “The Committee has established a policy that: neither the profitability nor the market value of its stock are to be considered. Factors considered … are typically subjective… he utilizes many different incentive arrangements with their terms dependent upon economic potential or capital intensity.  These prices are never related to measures over which [the person] has no control.”

  His well known results speak for themselves.  The overall gain of his company from the date of inception is 434,057% compared with the most familiar yardstick – the S&P 500 at 5,430%.  And what I’m sure he’d say was nearly as important in the evolution of his business has been the development of an incredibly strong and defensible position. 

  As he likes to say “you don’t know who is wearing swimming trunks until the tide goes out…”  Indeed, instead of being bailed out, he was in there with Uncle Sam tossing lifelines.  And taking advantage of the extremely depressed pricing of most financial instruments.  “I felt like an oversexed guy with a harem.”

   How did he get to be so smart?  He’d be the first to admit to being fortunate in having had both his brain wired up in a certain fashion as well as the unconditional love of his parents.  There was additional insight in the March 24, 2010 WSJ. 

  Buffet dearly wanted to matriculate at Harvard, but was denied admission.  “The truth is, everything that has happened in my life … that I thought was a crushing event at the time, has turned out for the better… [setbacks] carry you along.  You learn that a temporary defeat is not a permanent one.  In the end, it can be an opportunity.”*

  Take heart kids.

*WSJ 3/24/10

Ding Dong Ditch It

April 2, 2010

  Ok, it’s spring, and, uh, well, you’re not going to believe this, but though I’m at my office, my mind is not.  Wife knows where it is, or at least could relate the nature of the topography.  Somewhere on that divine razor’s edge.

  Memory of an exhilarating perch on a narrow ledge high up something tall and steep has never left me.  It constellates sporadically, but early every spring without fail.  Dang.  Much has changed in my life as well as in technical aspects of an ascent, but I’m fit and confident that I’d have no problem, at least not with the kinesthetic cerebrations.

  On a mid-cliff ledge looking out, eye to eye with the clouds and swallows, an exuberant solemnity wells up – especially if you’re with a good friend (or kid!) and the route is challenging, but not several grades too difficult.  All distraction falls away.  There is no thought of anything else.

  Indeed, there is no thought.  Thinking would just get in the way.  Each line has its own rhythm into which one naturally falls.  Necessary details of the task could be no more apparent.  At the ledge, as gear is rearranged, words seem superfluous and few are exchanged.

  Sometimes you linger for a glance, snack, or drink, but not for long and not often because all know there is an inverse relationship between time spent on the edge and well being.  Rocks fall, storms brew.  Less time given for shit to happen the better. 

  Quite the paradox, eh?  Visited with otherworldly elation while knocking on heaven’s door, one’s intentions lie just this side of the nave.